Day of the Atonements
One thing that has always struck me about the holiest day of the Israelite year, is that the confession of one’s sins is between us and God directly. It is true we think about the wrongs and failings in our relationships with other human beings too, but they are not confessed to anyone on this day, only to God.
Psalm 16:8 says, “I keep YHVH before me always”. When we read this, we think of how much of our work has been to refocus our souls on YHVH. The perfection of our souls descends from this readjusted relationship. When God is the highest thing in our lives, everything else falls into its proper perpective.
Micah 6:8 says, “Walk humbly with your God”. When we read this, we are reminded that a true Follower of YHVH should not act with arrogance or conceit when speaking of their faith. The ideal is to follow one’s faith with dignity, with confidence, and with maturity, but most of all, with humility. No one is perfect but YHVH; no one knows all things but YHVH; and no one has all the answers but YHVH. It’s all right for a man or woman of religion to admit sometimes, “I don’t know”.
Proverbs 3:6 says, “In all your ways acknowledge God”. When we read this, we think of how much responsibility we have to honour the path that we have chosen. What we do shows who we are, but we know that we will often fail, and fall short of the ideal.
The Day of Atonement gives us a chance to re-balance, re-examine and readjust our relationship with God. It gives God a chance to say to us, “Hey, I know you’re doing your best. It’s OK, no sweat. Draw your strength from Me, and I know you’ll achieve great things this coming year.”
How we approach this day
I think the biggest point to make is what atonement actually means. The English word comes from the Christian belief that the Hebrew word kippur means becoming ‘at one’ with God – hence ‘atone’. This is not the Israelite understanding of atonement.
The word kippur is from the Hebrew verb le-khapper, which literally means ‘to cover’ (in the sense that the ritual is performed on someone else’s behalf). However, the piel form means ‘to cleanse or free someone (that is, from the guilt/stain of their sin).’
Kippur is about bringing your penitent soul in prayer directly into the Presence of God, to be cleansed and purified of the stain of sin by the fire of the glory of Yahveh, so that one can be healed and restored by one’s time in the presence of God’s Divine Radiance. Cleansing and restoration to wholeness are the hallmarks of this Israelite understanding of atonement.
On the Day of the Atonements, we do no work of any kind whatsoever. It is a day of solemnity, and sexual abstinence. The day involves intense prayer and genuine repentance.
The main feature of the day is of course the fast. When we meet one another, we say, “Tsom Tov” ([Have a] Good Fast). From sundown to sundown, no food passes our lips.
The day is spent in prayer and contemplation. Talmidis read anything that will help us to examine ourselves closely. As well as passages from the Torah and the Psalms, we can read any material which will help engender an atmosphere of solemnity and repentance.
Fasting usually begins an hour before sunset, and ends at the end of the day once darkness has fallen. On this day, Torah instructs us to “afflict your souls” (= afflict your appetites). The Hebrew idiom simply means “to fast”. The Hebrew for ‘soul’ in this context is nefesh. This Hebrew word, usually translated as ‘soul’, has a number of meanings. In this instance, it actually means ‘appetite’. There are several other verses where this is the case: Psa 35:13, Psa 69:11, Isa 58:3, Prov 23:2-3, Psa 107:9, Prov 27:7, Isa 56:11
On the holiest day of the year, we fast. Now, some authorities say that this includes not drinking, but I would strongly advise against this on medical grounds. It is not advisable to deprive yourself of water, even if you are healthy; experts say that we need at least 2 litres of water a day for the body to function properly. From a medical perspective, it is dangerous to deny the human body water for long periods of time. Not eating for a day will not harm the body. We are asked to afflict our appetites, not injure our health!
Also, if you are ill, or recovering from an illness, you are not expected to fast. Also, very young children, pregnant women and the very elderly are also not expected to fast.
In Joel 2:12-13 we are taught that fasting must be accompanied with genuine repentance. In the Israelite understanding of repentance, this involves genuine sorrow for one’s sins, and a return to God:
“But now, says YHVH, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and return to YHVH your God: for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, full of faithful love, and relents over inflicting disaster.”
How Talmidi services proceed
In the evening, the goal is to remember the things in our past that have hurt us, and to cleanse ourselves of them, so that we can proceed to the following morning refreshed, ready to recall our sins without bitterness.
Because of the nature of the whole day, everything is designed with the human psyche in mind. We begin dressed in black, and after we immerse ourselves, we change to white, to symbolise this cleansing of our past, and preparing us to go forward to recall our sins.
In the evening, prayers for the dead are recited – again, this is all part of assuaging our sorrow, preparing ourselves for the following morning.
The following morning, we incorporate the Temple prayers into our services. We remember what the High Priest did throughout the day, in order to add to the solemnity of the atmosphere of this holy day. We say prayers which help us to recall our sins, and we go through the ritual of performing the three atonements: one for the High Priest, the second for the priests, and the third for all Israelites. At each one we bow, kneel and the prostrate ourselves – all designed to help bring us into a frame of mind where we realise the gravity of our sin, and prepare our souls to be cleansed of our sin.
The hearts and souls of those undergoing this ritual reaches a climax towards the end of the evening, and by the time the final prayer is said, one feels that a weight has been lifted off ones shoulders, that one has indeed been cleansed and forgiven:
“On this day, through your prayers, atonement has been made for you to cleanse you; from all your sins you are clean before YHVH.”
The scapegoats in Temple times
In the days of the Temple at the noon service, the High Priest would approach two goats waiting near the altar of sacrifice. The goats were identical in their appearance, size and value. Next to them was an urn, containing two golden tablets. On one was inscribed “For YHVH”, and on the other was inscribed, “For Azza-zeil”.
The tablets were shuffled inside the urn. Then he would reach inside with both hands, and withdraw with a tablet in each hand. It was considered auspicious if the tablet marked “For YHVH” came out in his right hand.
The High Priest would then hang whichever tablet was in his right hand on the head of the goat at his right; and whichever tablet came out in his left hand, he would hang on the head of the goat at his left.
Then a red sash was tied to the horns of the second goat, the one with the Azazel tablet. This would later become the scapegoat for the sins of the people of Israel. This was later sent out alive into the wilderness; the shedding of its blood was not required for the forgiveness of sin. The two goats were then kept ready for the afternoon service.
The 2 scapegoats together represent the human soul. They are meant to be identical, symbolising the one soul that is split from its sins after death. The goat sent into the wilderness, upon whom the sins of Israel are placed, represents the sins that we divest ourselves of in Azza-zeil (a proto-Semitic word meaning ‘Fortress of Shadows’, or what Yeshua` called, ‘the Outer Darkness’). This is a place where we are cleansed of all those sins we did not repent of in life.
As for the goat that is for Yahveh, its blood (which was splashed on the Ark in the Holy of Holies) represents the human soul once it has been divested of sin, which then makes its journey towards the cleansing fire of God’s glory, before entering heaven. The body of this goat, which was burned outside the walls of Jerusalem, represents the empty shell of the human body which returns to the dust after death.
Examples of Prayers for the Day of the Atonements
The following are prayers that were said by the High Priest in the Temple in ancient times. Talmidis today include them in their services for this holiest day of the year.
A prayer recited in the Holy of Holies:
“May it please you, O YHVH our God, and the God of our ancestors, that neither this day nor during this year, any captivity should come upon us. Yet if captivity should befall us, this day or during this year, let it be to a place where Torah can be cultivated.
May it please you, O YHVH our God, and the God of our ancestors, that neither want nor need shall come upon us, either this day or during this year. But if want should visit us this day or during this year, let it be due to the liberality of our charitable deeds.
May it please you, O YHVH our God, and the God of our ancestors, that this year may be a year of fairness, of fullness, of commerce and of trade; a year with an abundance of rain, of sunshine, and of dew; one in which your people Israel shall not require assistance one from another. And listen not to the prayer of those setting off on a journey, who pray for it not to rain on them.
As to your people Israel, may no enemy exalt themselves against us.
May it please you, O YHVH our God, and the God of our ancestors, that those who live on the plain of Sharon – in places of earthquake, flood-plains and flood-valleys – that their houses will not become their graves.”
The following is the prayer said at the afternoon service, the last of the three atonements after which the day gets its biblical Hebrew name (Yom ha-Kippurim – Day of the Atonements):
“I beseech you O YHVH,
they have sinned, they have been iniquitous,
they have transgressed against you
– your people, the House of Israel.
I beseech you O YHVH,
Pardon the sins, iniquities and transgressions
Which they have committed against you
– your people, the House of Israel,
as it is written,
‘On this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you;
from all your sins you shall be clean before YHVH’.”
And the people would respond,
“Blessed by the name of YHVH; the glory of God’s kingdom is forever and
By the end of the day
The aim of this holiest of days, is to take you through a whole psychological and spiritual process, so that by the end of the day, you actually feel spiritually cleansed and renewed. You work through the sorrow and pain of your sins, and come out the other side restored to spiritual health, with a resolve to do better.